Breaking Bad: The Process of Becoming “Just”

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Danielle Warthen, TA Coordinator of Writing Center Multicultural Initiatives

By Danielle Warthen.  As a writing instructor who’s also been a writing tutor in the UW-Madison Writing Center for the past five years, I’d say that, hands down, the most common comment I hear from students new to the Writing Center when we begin our sessions is: “I’m a bad writer.” It’s often said in an apologetic tone, as if the student has already decided that this session will be yet another disappointing illustration of being “bad at writing,” and I should prepare myself for some sort of intellectual letdown. These words are often meant as a benevolent warning to me, I suppose as a way to help me manage my expectations. The student is telling me not to expect a “good writer” who’s going to be a breeze to collaborate with–this is going to be hard work for both of us, with questionable returns, because . . . well, they’re bad at it.

These four short words–“I’m bad at writing”–convey a multitude of meanings: “I can’t do this,” “I’ve been told I’m bad at this by my peers and/or my instructors,” “I didn’t learn what I needed to be a good writer because of past educational experiences (or the lack thereof),” or “I don’t know how to do this assignment at all or well, and, because of that, I’m bad at writing.” The statement is loaded with individual and personal meanings for each person who utters it, yet, somehow, a myriad of students know the same words to what appears to be a very familiar tune. For many of these students, their visits to the Writing Center are often anticipated as being temporary band-aids that can help quell the bleeding for specific assignments, but they have no real expectations of actually healing their wounds. And this is true whether I’m meeting with a first year undergrad who’s writing in an intro to lit class, an advanced undergrad who’s writing an art history paper, or a graduate student who’s writing and publishing in a field like biomedical engineering.  As we all know, however, eventually band-aids have to get ripped off. So what happens the next time the student feels like a bad writer? With no true care, that intellectual wound remains.

My usual reaction to “I’m a bad writer,” after probing more to find out what reasons the student has for thinking his or her writing is bad, is to make a very simple statement in return: “I bet you’re not, and I’m going to prove it to you.” These words are clearly not part of the tune they’re used to singing, so my response is often met with surprise, and, more frequently, skepticism. How can one half-hour or hour-long session disprove what they know is an irrefutable fact?  And how can I be so confident that I can disprove that established fact? After all, I just met the student–I have no idea what “problems” exist or what we’ll be able to accomplish during the meeting.

And these are legitimate questions–ones I anticipate and love to get, if for no other reason than because my response can provide a simple thing: hope. Upon hearing those familiar words “I’m bad at writing,” I say the exact thing that detectives on TV shows are never supposed to tell grieving families when conducting an investigation: “we’ll find the culprits and bring them to justice.”  The audience knows that the detective isn’t supposed to make that promise because at least one character always reminds the detective that it’s irresponsible to make promises they can’t keep or give false hope. A similar—though admittedly not as dire—type of danger lies in promising students that I can prove they’re not bad writers. I mean, what if I’m wrong? What if I don’t see the right clues, find the culprit, or solve the crime? Not only will the student continue to have a negative self-image about his or her writing ability, but they will have also been given false hope and may even believe that I’m a liar, which can be debilitating to the image of writing center work and what tutors strive to achieve with the students they collaborate with.  So why do I do it, besides liking–just a little–the idea of having some sort of cosmic connection with renegade TV detectives?

In so many areas of academia, there’s “an answer.” There’s a formula or set of clues that can lead students to an accurate solution. There are rules, and learning those rules is what makes us “good” at what we study, whatever the subject matter may be. Not so, though, in writing. While there are rules in writing that often need to be followed in order to coincide with field or genre-specific expectations, for every one rule that exists, there seem to be at least three or four sneaky counter-rules lurking, waiting to undermine that knowledge. Just look at all the citation and grammar rules and how often they evolve! And, depending on the mode of delivery, writing rules can be constructed in a seemingly unending conglomeration of arrangements, leading to unclear expectations or understandings about how to execute well-written pieces of prose. As a PhD student who’s currently writing my dissertation under a veil of confusion as I attempt to clarify and convey the depth of my analytical ability (or just write sentences that make sense), I empathize. I’m supposed to be a “good” writer by virtue of my academic and professional experience, yet sometimes the prospect of sitting down to write is enough to make me break out in cold sweats or just want to avoid it. So I get it. I understand how not always knowing how to answer a question can make a student feel like there’s something lacking ability, intelligence, or motivation-wise. I understand the anxiety that can come with trying to convey ideas to an audience, and I appreciate why it’s frustrating when critics, be they inner or outer, undermine our perceptions of having the ability to write well. Therefore, I get why so many students think they’re bad at writing, and I also realize that many times these negative perceptions have been developed over long periods of time with support from peers, instructors, and their own self-doubt. Their confessions are not to be taken lightly.

We're on the case!

We're on the case!

So why do I tell those self-proclaimed “bad writers” that I can show them they’re not? And why do I believe it? Because, by the end of the session, my goal is to instead show them that they’re writers. Not “bad” writers. Not even “good” writers, whatever that means.  Just. Writers. With all of the frustration, rewards, setbacks, successes, and creativity that that word implies. Like many of my peers in writing center work, I make it my goal to help students better recognize where they can make improvements in their writing. I emphasize that they were already writers before they ever sat down with me, and now they’re there to talk about their writing, something every successful writer needs. By talking through the writing, thinking more specifically about the students’ goals and audiences, and probing for what thoughts the student has and how she or she can relate those ideas to the writing task at hand, we inevitably reach a place where we’re able to feel like the student can take more authority over his or her writing. Along the way, we note what particular trends or issues are occurring in the draft, and I encourage students to develop strategies for success, whether that means reviewing specific grammar rules or talking through ideas until we reach the ever-illusive answer to the “so what?” in an analytical essay. This is not to toot my own horn, say what a great tutor I am, or state how effective my strategies are. In fact, in writing this, one of my main goals was to avoid a more pedantic and simplistic “here’s what you should do” tone, because “bad writing” is not a simple issue in writing center work, and it would be irresponsible of me to indicate otherwise or that there’s a simple fix for every student.

Instead, what I think my personal tutoring style points to is that we all, students and teachers alike, benefit from being able to feel confident that we can do something more than what we expect, and that includes learning how to improve our writing skills. For me, the goal becomes to show both of us that there’s something there to build on during our session, however small that advancement may be. By paying attention to what students do well, I strive to undermine the debilitating ideas that whatever difficulties they have with writing (which are interestedly often couched in language about being bad at grammar and/or flow) equate to being bad writers overall, with very little hope of shedding the “bad writer” label. Whatever a students’ background, I believe that we in writing center work are fortunate as teachers because we get to say when someone is doing well and collaborate with students in positive and personalized ways that allow them to A) realize that there is actually hope, and B) realize that they were “good” writers all along, even if their writing was trying to tell them otherwise.  I realize that that may sound a bit Pollyanna-ish and overly simplistic, but that’s because, for me, the idea is simple, even if the execution of it is more complicated and creates challenges.

I make it my goal during sessions to not only provide hope, but also provide insight into what often gets left out of students’ vocabularies: the idea of the process. Now, I know that the fact that writing is a process is nothing new and is hardly earth shattering. However, I also know that, for many of the students I see, that information is actually pretty revolutionary, because very few people have told them the secret to good writing: it takes time.  A lot of time. And, more importantly, revision. The idea of linking the concept of writing as a process to the concept of also being self-reflective about the writer’s strengths and weaknesses is one that’s often overshadowed in lieu of the idea of just getting it done and aiming for a “B” or above. But, for those students who feel like they’re bad at writing, I also feel like there’s a desire to have a better understanding of why they’re bad at writing and how to get better. After all, anyone can be told that they’re bad at something like grammar or flow, but what that actually means for each student is much more illusive and difficult to pinpoint, especially if the student isn’t even sure what rules they’re breaking. In almost every session I have with “bad writers,” by the end we’re able to see how the student has transitioned from someone who dreads writing because there’s no hope to someone who’s a writer, revising along the way and getting better all the time at recognizing how their own learning and writing styles affect their abilities to produce effective writing. This transformation often means accepting the process–there’s no quick route to success in most things in academia, and writing is certainly no exception, nor should it be.

So, does this realization mean that, at the end of every half-hour or hour-long session, the “bad writer” student leaves with a perfectly polished and good-to-go draft, completely confident that he or she is in fact an awesome writer who can now dominate whatever writing task comes their way? Very often, no. Of course not. The assignment may be too long to finish, we may focus on just a few key issues, leaving others for later, or we may decide to end at a particular spot to allow the student to do some self-reflection and revision alone before coming back. Or, more generally, the student may have more writing concerns or worrisome habits than can be addressed during a single session. And, while I would love to say that every “bad writer” I see develops a long-lasting relationship with the writing center and adopts a more process-based attitude toward writing and revision, I know that that’s simply not true, and that band-aid we apply during the session is going to be a temporary measure.

So, as I often ask my students when I want to push their analysis: “so what? What can we take from this? What point do you want to convey to your audience?” Should we all just try to be positive in writing center work and hope that students will take from our positive responses and encouragement something that will help eradicate the “bad writer” epidemic? In my view, the answer is “yes!” As a struggling writer who’s also labored under my own “bad writer” label far too many times than I care to remember (I’m shaking my fist at you, dissertation!), I know that one of the most powerful motivators for me is when my readers not only point out what I need to improve, which is, of course useful, but also what I’m doing well. This simple act of pointing to something I am succeeding at reminds me that I’m a writer, with all of the vexation and pleasure that comes with it. And all of the power. And if I need that reminder after having been a writer since I was young, it makes sense that those who do not write for pleasure or on a regular basis would also benefit from some positive reinforcement, especially in response to all the “bad writer” signals they’re encountering outside of the writing center.

So, like my TV show detective comrade, I will continue to believe in providing hope by telling every “bad writer” I see that they they’re not “bad,” but “just writers.” And we’ll go from there.

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